Conserving a Heritage: One Step Forward, Three Steps Back

[Note: The following was first published in the January 2014 Alberta Outdoorsmen.]

Copyright © 2014 Don H. Meredith, All Rights Reserved.

In this era of frenzied resource extraction at all costs, it is refreshing to hear some success at reining in the greed and conserving something for the greater good. That was how I felt when I read a November 21, 2013 news article about the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee unanimously voting to approve the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act. The vote was bipartisan which bodes well for the act’s success on the floor of the Senate in the coming weeks.

What is the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act? It is a piece of federal legislation that was initiated in 2007 in Montana by a coalition of ranchers, hunters, anglers, outfitters, business owners and conservationists (Coalition to Protect the Rocky Mountain Front) The act seeks to protect about 405,000 acres (164,000 hectares) of the front range of the Rocky Mountains, south of Glacier National Park. These people were concerned about what was happening to this land with regard to oil and gas activities, unrestricted road building threatening elk and other habitats, unrestricted use of motor vehicles eroding trails, streams and grazing areas, and the spread of noxious weeds. They lobbied their congressmen and senators in Washington D.C. and presented a united front that was difficult to resist.

What is remarkable about this group is that individuals agreed to put their differences aside on many issues and work together to accomplish this one thing that would benefit them all and succeeding generations. Not an easy job in this day of marginalizing and demonizing those who disagree with you.


Protecting our headwater regions is not only important to conserve wildlife, but also to protect our water supplies.

We used to do this kind of thing here in Alberta. As Duane Radford and I outlined in Conservation, Pride and Passion (2008, AFGA), the Alberta Fish and Game Association (AFGA) was organized by a similar coalition of hunters, anglers and conservationists, who in the early 20th century were concerned about dwindling game populations. They banded together to convince the governments of the day that fish and wildlife populations needed to be protected. In those days, the job was perhaps easier to do, as Alberta was a rural-based society, and many legislators also hunted and fished and had first-hand experience of the problem. In due course, the AFGA lobbied the government to create what eventually turned into the Fish and Wildlife Division, which until recently, led the charge for wildlife conservation in the province. The result was habitats were preserved, information about the numbers and health of species was gathered, scientifically based hunting regulations enacted, and game numbers rebounded.

When I first came to Alberta in the early 1970s, the one major conservation issue I remember was the Eastern Slopes Policy where such organizations as the AFGA, the Alberta Wilderness Association and several other groups pressured the Alberta government to protect Alberta’s eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains from uncontrolled exploitation by oil, gas, mining and forestry companies. The Peter Lougheed government was amenable to such actions and in 1977 issued A Policy for Resource Management of the Eastern Slopes. Although not legislation like the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act would be in the U.S., the policy was a good start toward conserving many of the natural values Albertans saw in their mountains and foothills.

Alas, as the years passed, successive governments bent to industry pressures and the Eastern Slopes Policy was progressively watered down to allow for more development and erosion of much fish and wildlife habitat. That didn’t prevent the governments from making grand statements about how they were still protecting wildlife habitats despite the setbacks they were allowing. However, many opportunities to conserve our wildlife and recreational resources were lost.

Indeed, that seems to be the pattern of both the Alberta and federal government: make all the right statements but fail to back them up with actions. The woodland caribou debacle is but one example. All the right statements are made about the need to protect this iconic but threatened species, but the continued erosion of caribou habitat continues, even to the point of admitting whole herds will be sacrificed so another tar-sands project can go forward to ensure jobs for foreign workers and profit for foreign companies.

Now, the political situations in Montana and Alberta are quite different, despite the similarities of our Rocky Mountain east slopes. For one, the U.S. Senate is nothing like our undemocratic Canadian Senate, where patronage and, as we’ve recently seen, flagrant porcine trough swilling rules the day. U.S. Senators are elected for fixed terms and many actually feel an obligation to represent the interests of their constituents. So, a bill’s passage through this senate is indeed a significant event.

As well, much of Montana is federal (Bureau of Land Management) land, and that is the land involved in the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act. In Alberta, with the exception of the national parks, our public land is provincial. So, it is the Alberta government we must lobby for changes to policy or legislation similar to what the Montana coalition is asking, i.e., creating meaningful wildlife habitat around the national parks, where those parks act as refuges for core populations of our large ungulates. Such habitat would be accessible by foot or horse, and would also protect our precious headwaters areas, where much of our potable water is sourced.

One would think the current Land Use Framework discussions would be the logical place to conduct lobbying about conserving our wild heritage. However, if you look at the draft South Saskatchewan Regional Plan, such lobbying doesn’t seem to be making much headway, as proposed protected areas (where motor vehicle access would be restricted, for example) are few and fragmented—not really providing the protection many fish and wildlife species require.

So, who is doing the lobbying for increased protection at these LUF discussions? Well, one would assume the AFGA is involved, and they most likely are, but we don’t hear much about it, except encouragement for individuals to read the draft plan and comment during the public consultation process. All good things to do, but where is the leadership? Unfortunately for anglers and hunters, it’s coming from environmental groups that perhaps do not have the best interests of hunters and anglers in mind.

The lack of leadership from our governments on environment issues is understandable once you realize both levels of government have sold out our environment to the petroleum industry, as I’ve previously related in this column. The lack of leadership in our AFGA is harder to understand. Last year, when the government dissolved the Fish and Wildlife Division into something called “biodiversity”, barely a peep was heard from the AFGA, even though it had been the organization that had lobbied for the division’s creation in the first place. Has our chief conservation organization been compromised as well? I trust not, but actions speak louder than words.

If we are to hope we can save a bit of our wildlife heritage for future generations, including hunting and fishing opportunities, we need leadership brave enough to form coalitions like that in Montana. We should not be afraid to work with people with whom we don’t always see eye-to-eye, but with whom we can make real progress to preserve what we all desire.

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About Don Meredith

I am a writer and biologist living in Alberta, Canada. I wrote a monthly column for the Alberta Outdoorsmen magazine, and have published articles for several other magazines.
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